Tokyo Notes

Ozawa-Kan Leadership Finale

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Tokyo Notes

Ozawa-Kan Leadership Finale

The DPJ election circus is coming to a close. But will lawmakers be listening to the Japanese public?

It hasn’t been the greatest show on earth. The Democratic Party of Japan’s leadership election circus is finally on its way out of town after a protracted run, but party lawmakers still seem to be juggling with the merits of its two main performers.

Tomorrow’s poll to pick Japan’s prime minister is too close to confidently call. Prime Minister Naoto Kan has popular support among rank-and-file DPJ members and supporters, but it might not be enough to tame the lion that is party ringmaster Ichiro Ozawa, who appears to have a slightly greater sway over legislators (whose votes carry a much heavier weighting), especially newbies.

Both Kan and Ozawa have been on a campaigning road show for nearly 2 weeks to win over the party’s 411 Diet members, 2,382 local assembly members and about 350,000 ordinary members (for whom the voting deadline was Saturday). TV shows also highlighted the busy schedules of the pair on Monday as they paid visits to undecided lawmakers and shored up the support of influential party figures.

The two men are cut from strikingly different cloths. Kan is a former citizen activist and outspoken speaker, whereas Ozawa excels in ‘smoky room’ politics and has built and burnt several parties during a bulldozing 40-year Diet career. Unsurprisingly, this has led Kan to stand on a platform of clean politics against Ozawa, who is implicated in a political-funding scandal. Ozawa maintains his innocence, and has turned his cannons on what he sees as Kan’s poor leadership skills, blaming him for the party’s poor (but not as bad as indicated in the mainstream media) showing in June’s upper house election.

But the most standout feature of this election is that policy differences between the two candidates seem to be greater than those between the DPJ and the Liberal Democratic Party, the largest opposition party.

On the economy, Kan has repeated a mantra of ‘jobs, jobs, jobs,’ and (perhaps naively, fearing a Greek-like debt crisis) is determined to cut public works spending and the nation’s deficit. Ozawa, on the other hand, advocates LDP-esque pump-priming (read pork-barrel) measures to invigorate local economies.

Kan seems to be in favour of a rise in consumption tax and a cut in corporate taxation (Japan has one of the highest corporation tax rates in the developed world), while Ozawa has said he would keep consumption tax at 5 percent for the remainder of the current 4-year lower house term, but has mooted possible reductions in income and property taxes.

Kan, a pragmatist, has turned his back on manifesto pledges that helped sweep the party so spectacularly to power last summer. Citing the nation’s tight purse strings, he has yet to fully implement promised monthly 26,000-yen child allowance payments.

Ozawa, however, is sticking doggedly to the manifesto. On the issue of the relocation of a U.S. marines base in Okinawa Prefecture, Ozawa (who wants to switch the emphasis of foreign policy from the United States to Japan’s Asian neighbours) is keen to go back to the drawing board and discuss the possibility of shifting the base out of the country. Kan, however, would stick with an agreement made in May by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama (the dithering over which ultimately cost Hatoyama his job) to keep the base in Japan’s southernmost prefecture.

While the general public has no direct say in determining the nation’s prime minister in this party election, a Yomiuri Shimbun poll last week showed that 66 percent of voters wanted Kan to stay on the prime-ministerial tight-rope, with only 18 percent preferring the ‘shadow shogun.’

DPJ lawmakers would be clowns not to heed this strong public sentiment when they cast their votes at 2 pm tomorrow. If they trampoline Ozawa into power, it would be akin to slapping a custard pie into the face of a Joe Public weary of the old dog’s tricks.

While an Ozawa win could see the DPJ tumbling off its trapeze in the polls, ironically it could hold the party together, especially if Ozawa offers Kan a key Cabinet post as promised. But a Kan victory (especially as he has yet to commit to such a position for his opponent) could see Ozawa reaping damage to the party, and looking for another new political big top.

Whatever the outcome, the party truly needs to put this sideshow behind it and get on with governing the country.